Technological change constantly surprises even the attentive. The invention of the transistor went virtually unnoticed in 1947. The personal computer came together in the early 1980s with astonishing speed, humbling mainframe experts who presumed everlasting hegemony. And handheld devices married to the cellular network are redefining consumer electronics, entertainment, and even computing itself.
Innovation forces engineers especially to concentrate their minds on the next big thing. Yet a big change is happening virtually unnoticed and, even worse, is inspiring fear and loathing in the masses.
I speak not of vaccines or emerging variants of E. coli or mishandled nuclear reactors. I speak of the smart meter. Just as activists once cried, "Ban the bomb!" they are now crying, " Ban the smart meter!"
We define ourselves as much by our enemies as our friends. The smart meter is a digital computer that measures the flow of gas and electricity into my house and reports on my usage to a central database, which I can, at least theoretically, access (when my utility finally gets around to letting me do so). Sometime last year, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. replaced my old meter with a smart meter, which carries a tiny antenna that broadcasts information wirelessly. PG&E supplied me the meter at no extra charge.
My smart meter resides about 25 meters from where I write this column. I visit my meter often. When I walk out the front door of my modest bungalow and head left alongside my garage, I quickly reach my meter, which actually sports (in big letters) the moniker "Smart Meter."
The meter gives off ultrahigh-frequency radio waves, but then so does my iPhone. Across the United States, about 20 million similar meters have been installed. By 2015, Chris King, chief regulatory officer of eMeter Corp., expects 25 percent of utility meters to go smart, with millions more smart meters to be installed between now and 2020.
Hooray for progress! Even the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the world’s most knowledgeable groups on these matters, has reviewed the science behind the technology and declared it safe.
At a time when nothing beats improving energy efficiency, my smart meter opens the door to nifty future services that will reduce the carbon footprint of my house, help me manage my electricity more efficiently and, someday, even provide my house with greater security.
Yet the unassuming smart meter is provoking the most intense organized opposition to a technological artifact since vaccines were tagged (wrongly) with causing autism in kids. In the superstates of California and Texas, as well as Connecticut, resistance to smart meters has grown so high and widespread that temporary or permanent bans on these devices have been imposed or debated.
Echoes of the Luddites? A ban because of fears over exposure to UHF radio waves—by people who cling to their cellphones as if their lives depended on sending one more text?
Here’s the difference between smart meters and cellphones for people too confused or paranoid to observe this for themselves: I hold my phone next to my ear to talk, and it’s on my person almost always. I don’t hold the smart meter to my head or carry it around in my pocket. It’s stuck in the ground outside my house. Smart meters are not going to increase my chances of contracting brain cancer, but my frustration with people who believe that is definitely raising my blood pressure.
Radiation isn't the only complaint. Smart meters store much personal data on electricity usage, which could violate privacy if not safeguarded. And new meters have spawned complaints of inaccuracy in Texas and California; these charges have been debunked by utilities, but fears of inaccurate are fanned by the introducing the meters alongside new rate plans, making straight-up comparisons with the past difficult.